Christophe Agou is a street photographer from France, currently based in New York. He is a part of In-Public, and his published works include “Life Below: The New York Subway” and his newest book: “LES FAITS SECONDAIRES” ( SECONDARY FACTS).
Great having you Christophe! For those not familiar with you or your work, could you share how you first got interested in street photography?
In March of 1992, I moved to New York from a small town in France. I had a dream to pursue photography.
The city quickly became my muse. I began photographing on the streets and later on in the subways, feeling an almost “mystical force” leading me. Serendipity and chance encounters with photographers like Robert Frank and many other dedicated artists served to reinforce my dedication, as did the flow of invitations to gallery openings and photography events I received during one year addressed to “Mr. John B.,” the prior tenant and photographer of my apartment.
The energy of New York and human interactions has been sources of inspiration ever since I moved. At first I felt that the thousand-word picture was it. Then I realized it was not enough to convey my feelings. Storytelling became essential– working in a series, sequencing images with one another in order to create a visual narrative.
Inside Out was my first series of street photographs I made close to my home (Upper West Side NY 1995). I realized that human emotions exist right around the corner. At that time, I no longer feel the urge to travel halfway around the world to photograph existence.
Who were the main artists or photographers who inspired your creative vision?
My mother Colette, who is a painter, taught me how to examine colors and forms. The poetic vision of Italian photographer Mario Giacomelli has been such an inspiration. He knew how to reinvent himself. The color street photography of American Saul Leiter— who is immensely talented as well.
How difficult was it to shoot the New York subway? How did it differ from shooting street photography in public? How did you build up your courage to shoot?
Like millions of others, I first experienced the subway as a necessity of my daily commute. I soon became aware of the rich landscape I was part of. The underground world of the New York subway became a stage for chance rendezvous with people from all walks of life. My emotions seemed to echo those of the passengers I chose to portray.
In this oppressive environment and continual vis-à-vis, my approach was to observe and not to attract attention, letting my eye intuitively discover the reality under the surface. I did not hide my camera and shot very little. The distance that separated me from my subject was only the length of my arm. I had no destinations or expectations in mind. Each time I went ‘below’, it was with my heart.
Can you share the process of editing and putting together “Life Below“? How did you ultimately decide which images to include and exclude, and what emotions do you want the viewer to get out of your book?
I love making books. The construction of a sequence of images takes place much later in the process, which I find to be as creative and inspiring. A series allows me to evoke on a deeper level what is ” under the surface.”
I use Photoshop to create the layouts, make inkjet prints on heavy archival matte paper and bound them using an accordion-fold technique. Conceptually, the making of a maquette takes place in steps: determining the edit, sequencing the images, and creating a design in order to enhance the rhythm and ‘life’ of the work. This creative and meditative process can go on for weeks, even months. Each step has its own happy moments and a lot of surprises.
How do you feel your book is unique from other books done on the New York subway? Particularly compared to Bruce Davidson’s subway book?
The use of black-and-white to paint the Life Below was a choice I made without any hesitation. In order to ‘disappear’ and maximize manoeuvrability and speed I carried no gear such as a bag, flash, tripod or light meter. I chose not to conceal my camera, a Leica M6, and used a single wide-angle lense. Taking close-up pictures was new to me. It allowed me to enlarge facial expressions and reveal the moods of the people more strongly.
How did you first join In-Public, and how has the group helped you?
I was invited to join In-Public in 2002, and over time I made some great friends.
What ultimately draws you to the streets or public places to photograph?
Emotions have always been the motivating forces throughout my life and creative process. Inspiration comes from a number of places– and the streets are a great starting point. I use photography to explore themes of longing, solitude and common humanity.
What are some projects you are currently working on?
I recently published “LES FAITS SECONDAIRES“. The series explore impermanence and the duality of man’s presence-absence in a world where everything is fleeting, uncontrollable and perishable.
I have also been writing for the last 3 years. JE DE HASARD is a collection of short stories and early street pictures in the form of autobiography and confidences.
Any last words or pieces of wisdom you would like to share?
- The most important aspects in any creative work is to feel a strong affection for life and the emotional connection to people, places or objects– finding a special meaning to what you see, hear, smell or touch.
- What a photographer can do is to rearrange the reality into some esthetic compositions and emotional tableaux.
- I believe that the distance between a photographer and the subject should not be greater than his/her arm’s length.
– Christophe Agou, April 2014
Photos from “Life Below: The New York Subway“
Photos from “Inside Out”
Photos from “LES FAITS SECONDAIRES”
Order “Life Below: The New York Subway” on Amazon
Order Christophe’s New Book: “LES FAITS SECONDAIRES”
“With every glance I take in the ‘negative-positive’ of existence and the inevitability of impermanence to its glowing limits. Alone and haunted, I trust my inner eye, the heart. Everything, absolutely everything, becomes visible. Appearances, disappearances, nothing seems of secondary importance to me.” – Christophe Agou (CA, 2013)
Christophe has recently published a new book : “LES FAITS SECONDAIRES” ( SECONDARY FACTS). The images were shot over a 4 year period in New York, Paris, Los Angeles, Beijing and London. The book is limited edition with original texts by John Berger and poems by Daniel de Bruycker. The book features 60 duotone photographs printed with vegetable-based inks on triple star matt volume. The series explore the duality of man’s presence-absence in a world where everything is fleeting, uncontrollable and short-lived.
- LES FAITS SECONDAIRES. Limited edition of 700 copies. Original texts by Christophe Agou, John Berger, and poems by Daniel De Bruycker.
- Clothbound / 60 duotones / 112 pages / 10¾ x 9½ inches / english-french.
- USA $60 (includes postage) – EUROPE $60 (includes postage) – Rest of the World $80 (includes postage)
Order a signed copy on Christophe’s site here! The first 50 orders will receive a 6 x 9 inches print with the book. When you order the book, mention that you saw the book on this interview!